Of the big three, it's the performance that tends to slip the mind. To a point you understand why, even though John Walker's performance at Gothenburg on a windy evening 40 years ago holds an everlasting place among the great athletic achievements.

People of a certain age easily remember his brilliant duel with Filbert Bayi at the Christchurch Commonwealth Games in 1974, when both men broke the world record in the 1500m final.

Two years later, Walker followed in the footsteps of Jack Lovelock and Peter Snell in winning the Olympic 1500m gold in Montreal.

So how has becoming the first person to run under 3m 50s for the mile tended to sit in the mists of time for all but genuine athletics enthusiasts?


It's partly a question of distance. It's hard to find film of his run for a start. It was in Sweden and, in more ways than one, far away.

Some events just resonate. Gothenburg may not, but should.

Walker remembers his aim was to break Tanzanian Bayi's world record of 3m 51.0s, set a couple of months earlier. Dipping below the mythical mark of 3m 50s wasn't beating hard in his mind.

Walker felt good when he got to Gothenburg. He'd stopped racing for three weeks, followed coach Arch Jelley's schedules, and ran 800m in Helsinki in 1m 46.7s about a week before taking the train to Gothenburg.

His memories of the place remain unchanged down the years. "If I had a choice, I'd never have gone there."

He didn't particularly like the venue, still holds a dim view of the promoter and it took some to-ing and fro-ing to get Walker there.

The race was initially set down for 1500m - "I said if you change it to a mile I'll attempt the world record, but don't tell anyone".

Fat chance.


"There were 12,000 people there."

The night before the race, Walker went to the track and ran a series of 150-yard bursts, essentially the difference between 1500m and one mile. He peeled off a succession of 15.1s splits.

And remember, Walker then was on top of the world. He had won 19-straight races and felt, in a sense, bullet proof.

He always ran to win but this day winning wasn't really the issue.

Walker worried how the wind and open stadium would affect his attempt.

There was another problem. The Swedish pacesetter was supposed to pull Walker through the first 800m, "but this guy got to 700m and started running off the track. He left me to it. It was two-and-a-quarter laps to go, so I had to relax and get back to the race."

Essentially it became a time trial. Walker had to front-run it, as he suspected would happen anyway, "but I didn't bargain running as much on my own".

Walker was a spectacular sight in his pomp. Where Snell was the epitome of power - watch his 1500m final from the Tokyo Olympics and the unmatchable surge - Walker, with long locks flowing, in full stride was more about pure athleticism. He looked born to it.

Walker crossed the line, daylight second, and flung his weary arms up.

Auckland journalist Ivan Agnew got to Walker and pushed a stopwatch under his nose. The official announcement came shortly after - 3m 49.4s.

"I knew I'd broken the world record. The crowd was cheering," Walker recalled. "If they'd gone silent, I'd have lost it. [At first] I didn't know what time I had. The crowd went wild, throwing flowers at me. It was pandemonium."

He reflects now that it was "a perfect time trial. It wasn't a race. I never had a bad patch at any stage. It's something I'd always wanted to do. I felt the mile record was important."

On one point, Walker is adamant. He could have got the world record earlier, but what truly mattered to him, always, was winning. His view was time would take care of itself.

He got back to his room to discover his bath full of beer. There was a cheque for 600 and a piece of glassware.

It took a few weeks for Walker to return home. Emerging from customs he was greeted by cheering crowds, flags, TV crews, right? Wrong.

"They'd forgotten about it."

How about functions, dinners to mark the achievement? No, and nor was Walker surprised or disappointed.

"I wasn't there for that. I was there to run."

So of the big three, surely one of them remains Walker's personal favourite? No.

The day he broke the rarely-contested 2000m world record in Oslo, June 30, 1976, - shortly before heading to the Olympics - takes pride of place.

It was a day he felt his feet had wings. The record of Frenchman Michel Jazy, 4m 56.2s, had stood for 10 years. Walker ran 4m 51.4s, smashing the mark by 5s.

It set him up nicely for Montreal and Olympic 1500m gold, and in his mind stands above all his other achievements.

Walker, who will be honoured at a breakfast in Auckland on Wednesday, became the first man to reach 100 sub-four minute miles in 1985.

His personal best for the mile was 3m 49.08s in Oslo in 1982.

Bannister's mark remains among the most storied of athletic achievements.

Snell, however, is in no doubt.

"Bannister achieved lasting fame when he broke four minutes and he'll probably be always better known than Walker. But this was a far better run," he once said of Gothenburg.

For tickets to the 'Power of Dreams' breakfast on Wednesday go to www.fieldofdreams. org.nz